by Barbara Robinson
They say that you see yourself from above, don’t they? When you’re traumatised, or in shock. Not me. I see myself from below. Flying, paper cup of coffee falling onto the road, hot, foamy liquid spilling out. Shit! I’ll have to get another, I think.
I begin to rearrange the day in my mind: phone work, ask my sister to collect the boys from nursery, go to hospital. I feel fine lying here – grand, actually – but then, I slam hard back into my body and there’s this immense pressure, as though an invisible force pins me to the surface of the road. I feel broken inside, like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle in a sealed plastic bag, then warm, liquid numbness floods me. I see sky, then the inside of my eyelids.
A million things are happening at once: car doors slam, horns bleat, people shout. One siren joins another. Hands on either side of my head are pulling down my jaw, and something plasticky is held against my face as cold, rubbery air fills my mouth. Another hand touches my wrist, my neck, my ears, then palpates my tummy. Palpate: the medical word for touch. My eyelids are being opened one at a time, but I can’t see. ‘Unresponsive,’ says a voice, ‘no radial or carotid. Possible DOA. ECG, quickly!’
Then it’s soundless and still around me, except for a soft ruffling, like a bird’s feathers. A large hand holds mine, and I see him: a man kneeling beside me, his white shirt buttoned up to the collar, thick, white hair brushed upwards in a luxuriant quiff, just like my grandad’s. His eyes are very blue, the colour of sky, and they remind me of my nanna’s. He smells of church incense. ‘Come on, sweetheart,’ he says, ‘I’ll take you home.’
The thought of home makes my heart feel very full, and as he pulls me upright I feel light and soft. We walk, and I see the shapes of ambulances, stopped cars and people crowding around the place where I’ve been lying. I catch sight of a man with a ginger beard and realise that it’s Jordan from the café, the one who made my coffee just minutes ago. I try to tell him that I’m OK, that I’m going home, but he’s staring at the road and doesn’t hear me.
The man’s name is Cole. We walk hand-in-hand and he steers me towards the little Tesco, where the young lad sits by the cashpoint – sometimes laughing, sometimes crying – off his head on Spice. Today he’s huddled against the rain, hands covering his face. Cole squats down and places his hand on top of the young man’s head, and without knowing why, I do the same. The lad looks up and around and takes deep gasping breaths, eyes wide, tears frozen on his cheeks. His face registers surprise and joy, turning to pain and outrage when we move our hands away. When the twins were babies, I would take one off the breast to feed the other. It’s the same look.
‘It’s a world of suffering,’ says Cole. He frowns a little and taps a cigarette onto the pack that he’s holding. I think of my boys, still small, and the suffering they’ll feel when they know I’ve gone. I try to hold onto these thoughts, but they’re slipping away like a dream. When we reach the corner of the street, Cole stops and takes my other hand so that we’re facing each other, looking into each other’s eyes. ‘Now, listen,’ he says, an unlit cigarette between his lips. ‘We have to leave here to go some other places. Strange places. Places that you haven’t been before.’
‘OK,’ I say.
‘But after that, we are going to a wonderful place. A beautiful place. So beautiful.’ He squeezes my hands rhythmically as though trying to describe the indescribable with his fingertips.
Something is happening to me. I begin to shake convulsively, vibrations rattling my ribcage and skull. This is it, I think. I’m dying. Cole lets go of my hands and holds my shoulders, rubbing up and down the length of my arms until the shaking stops.
‘It’s OK, sweetheart,’ he says. ‘I’ll be with you. All the way.’ I look into the blue of his eyes, and I see sea and sky. He nods at me and smiles encouragingly, then lights the cigarette.
We arrive at my house and we enter. Beneath my feet is not the usual wooden floor, but a familiar, busy-patterned carpet in the colour scheme of my childhood: brown, gold and dirty blue. Everything smells different, like dozens of parties from a long-gone time when everybody smoked. Cole takes another cigarette from the pack and lights it. The pack, I notice, is blue – like his eyes – with the words ‘Natural American Spirit’ written in red on the front.
Cole gestures towards a black vinyl couch and I sit down and watch the ghost of a drunken game of charades. To one side, my dad shows my brother how to open a can of Party 7, using a tin opener to make two holes in the lid, and they laugh when the beer spurts all over the brown-gold-blue carpet. Everyone fades away, although the laughter echoes after they’ve gone. I drift in and out of these – dreams, memories, reveries? – for some time, though ‘time’ makes as much sense ‘here’ as tartan paint, or dry water.
Now it’s dark outside, and an orange stripe of light penetrates the gap between the pale-green chintz hanging at the windows. I spy a recently patched and painted section of ceiling, and I remember that leak – caused by an overflow in the guttering – and the bucket that sat beneath it for weeks before it was fixed. Cole kneels before the old-fashioned television set, a square, wooden box with a convex screen, fiddling with one of the knobs on the wooden panel at the front, a lit cigarette between his lips. A picture appears, obscured by jumpy lines across the screen. ‘Fucking vertical hold bullshit,’ says Cole, then smacks the side of the TV set and the picture rights itself.
On the television screen I see the boys with my mother and my sister. Mum looks old and small and I see a shadowy, grey cast around her. She’s dying, though she doesn’t know it yet. But how do I know it? My sister holds the boys to her, one on each knee. Gabe is screaming, furious at the loss of his mother; Rafe is silent, his big eyes staring ahead. He will feel it later. He is the one I’m worrying about. My eyes connect with my sister’s and her face fills the screen, as though I’ve zoomed in with my mind. I see wetness on her eyelashes, which are long like Rafe’s. She mouths something to me. I don’t know what it is, but I know what it means: she will mind them for me, she’ll look out for them, especially Rafe.
Language slides away from me, along with everything else. I look at Cole who is standing next to the image of my sister – I no longer recall her name – hands in his pockets and an unlit cigarette between his lips. Can I visit them? I think. He looks at me as he lights his cigarette with a gleaming silver Zippo lighter. His eyelashes are long, too, and white like his hair. ‘Yeah,’ he says, without speaking. ‘Three times. That’s all you get, sweetheart.’
I sit on the couch and let thoughts and memories slide over me and away. I try to hold onto them, but it’s like the tide. When I look around again, the room is empty apart from the couch that I’m sitting on. Cole is sweeping with a wooden broom, another cigarette – or maybe the same one – between his lips. ‘Ready, sweetheart?’ he says. I nod. He puts out his hand and pulls me up. We leave the room, which collapses behind us, and he pulls the door firmly until it clicks.
We stand together in the darkened hallway. The sudden light from Cole’s silver Zippo allows me to see a curtain just ahead of us which is blue, then purple, then red, then transparent, then blue again. A soft breeze moves it far enough to one side for us to pass through, and we ascend a wide, stone staircase.
I follow Cole up the steps, smooth and worn, bowed and curved from foot-traffic, but as we climb higher, they become narrow and wooden, like a whale’s spine, the short boughs like vertebrae, cutting across a central, upward-sloping plank. I can see the ash tree that it used to be, its thick, gnarled boughs reaching outwards in a broad crown, some of them almost touching the ground. I feel the age of it through the soles of my feet, the wood slippery with time. As we climb higher still, the steps disappear, and it is just a thick branch that we walk along with perfect balance. Cole tells me, over his shoulder, that it’s Yggdrasil, the World Tree, but I know this already. Again, how? Cole doesn’t smoke here. Too much wood, I imagine.
At the top, we emerge through another shimmering curtain onto a roof-top which is empty, apart from a plush red cinema love seat. The sky is deep-blue velvet and so full of stars. Cole gestures for me to sit on one side of the red love seat and he takes the other, hitching up his trousers slightly before he sits. He lights a cigarette with his silver zippo and takes a deep drag on the cigarette, holding in the smoke. He gives me the side-eye and smiles, then blows the smoke into the sky. I watch as the blue-and-silver turns to changeant silk, fluid arcs of purple and green, dark russet-pink, indigo, turquoise and yellow, moving in horizontal curves, then vertical tiger-stripes. It rushes at me in a feint, swirling away nonchalantly at the last minute, only to return with mellow searchlights, always moving, rippling like water, leaping like fire.
Whoah! I’ve always wanted to see the northern lights, I think. Cole holds up a hand as if to say, wait for it! and again blows into the sky, this time making perfect smoke rings. There is a whooshing, like the tuning of an old wireless, then hissing and popping, like eggs frying in a pan. It intensifies, becomes a series of claps and bangs, like distant fireworks, then resolves into unified applause. Cole stands, cigarette clamped between his teeth, clapping: the sky, the universe, me, which are all the same thing, he tells me, but somehow, I already know this. I’m becoming a know-it-all, I think, and at the same time I know that being a know-it-all is just a dead person’s thing.
We leave the rooftop and walk along a narrow corridor punctuated by a series of pointed arches, the white walls bathed in pink from tiny strip lights on the skirting boards. At the end of the corridor is an arched doorway. Cole looks at me and drops his cigarette on the mosaic-tiled floor, crushing it with the sole of his black shoe. ‘Ready, sweetheart?’ he says. What for? I think, but I know we are almost there. There.
He opens the door, gesturing for me to enter first, and we step inside a vast cathedral. I walk ahead of Cole along the nave – white-fogged and flanked by stone pillars – towards a high altar lit with a thousand candles. Standing to one side is a gaunt, bearded man wearing cargo pants and a polo shirt, his long hair tied back into a ponytail. Cole shakes hands with him and offers him a cigarette. The bearded man takes two, puts one behind his ear and allows Cole to light the other.
‘Pete, is it?’ says Cole.
‘Yes mate. For this one, anyway,’ Pete says, nodding at me and blowing smoke out of the side of his mouth. Everybody smokes in heaven, apparently. Next to him is a high pedestal table with a large bunch of keys and a small, curious-looking box made from wood or maybe Bakelite. He flips it open, revealing it to be a rolodex, and flicks through the cards.
‘Here we are,’ he says, unclipping the rings and handing me an index card. The page is blank, yet there are tiny, raised bumps and hollows on the page, like braille. I run my finger over them, gasping when something rose-thorn sharp nicks my finger, the pain bringing terrible memories of cruel things done by or to me. My fingertips want to linger on other parts of the page, where I feel small nubs of pleasure, like the pads of a cat’s paw or the cool, crinkly, fabric of children’s story books, but I know that I must touch everything to know it all. To not make the same mistakes.
Cole and Pete are standing at the foot of the high altar, hands in pockets, smoking. They both turn to look at me. ‘Yeah? You agree?’ says Pete, and I nod. They each hold out a hand to me, and we face the altar as a triptych. Bright light shines through the tall lancet windows above the altar, illuminating the stained-glass, bringing the figures into focus: the Virgin Mary and the usual saints and martyrs, but also one-eyed Odin, the Allfather, with his ravens, Hugin and Munin; Freyja with her chariot pulled by cats; and the trickster, Loki, bound by his son’s entrails, a serpent dripping venom onto his head.
Music plays, familiar and hypnotic. I notice a group of musicians in diaphanous white robes scattered around us on the high altar, each one about eight feet tall, slouching as though trying to disguise their height, their heads bald and decorated with runic tattoos. Cole and Pete look upwards, and I lean back, too. The domed ceiling above the altar begins to move, making kaleidoscopic, fractal shapes – a rose, a star a snowflake, a rose a star a snowflake (you get the idea) – and soon there is nothing but pulsing oculi and the feel of the hands that are holding mine, one smooth, one rough. When the ceiling opens, I let myself be pulled into its centre, and I don’t notice when their hands let go of mine.
I am on a beach. But what am ‘I’ now? Try mercury or liquid gold, or particles waiting to reassemble. A bird hovers over me, speaking to me in skipping, mournful tones. I wonder what it is and a voice that sounds like Cole’s says, ‘A whip-poor-will.’ I remember reading that whip-poor-wills are psychopomps: shapeshifters who escort souls to the afterlife. I look at the whip-poor-will’s eye which is blue like the sky and sea, then purple, then red, then transparent, then blue again.
‘You know everything, now,’ says the whip-poor-will, who sounds like Cole.
‘Yeah, I know,’ I say.
Barbara Robinson is a Mancunian writer with an MA in Creative Writing from Manchester Writing School. Her short story Supersum was short-listed for the 2016 Willesden Herald prize and her novel Elbow Street for the 2018 Andrea Badenoch Fiction Award. She occasionally reads at local literary events and can be found sporadically on Twitter & Instagram.